Aspen’s most spectacular wilderness areas are getting overrun

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Wilderness Ranger Eric Tierney talks with Sam and Tom Meiser of Lakewood, Friday evening at Snowmass Lake. The Meisers were model campers who used a bear canister and leave no trace practices.
Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times |


The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is assessing if a reservation system should be implemented for backpackers in Conundrum Valley and the Four Pass Loop, two of the most popular and pressured areas of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. The environmental review will include future public comment.

It is 7 p.m. sharp Friday when U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger Eric Tierney says it’s time to go to work.

He leaves his perch in a rock field that provides a spectacular view of the big peaks looming over Snowmass Lake — deep in the heart of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. He is wearing his Forest Service olive-green uniform. He throws on his pack and makes what initially seems like an odd choice to grab his Pulaski, the ranger’s all-purpose tool with an ax and blunt chisel on the end of a long wood handle.

Tierney heads toward the backpacker camps scattered in the woods around the lake. It’s evening patrol, where the wilderness rangers for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District contact campers at popular wilderness destinations and check for compliance with the major rules: possession of overnight permits, no camping within 100 feet of the water and main trail, no fires above 10,800 feet in elevation, dogs on leash and use of bear canisters to store food and garbage.

Before making his first contact, it becomes apparent why Tierney needed the Pulaski. In numerous semi-sheltered areas behind trees on the periphery of the campsites, there is unburied human waste and toilet paper.

Tierney becomes the grim reaper. Wherever he finds waste, he scratches a hole 6 to 8 inches deep and uses a stick to move the mess before burying it. He’s forced to repeat the process five more times while walking through the camping zone.

He has little to say about the task: “It’s disgusting.”

It adds insult to injury that the Forest Service provides highly effective waste bags at the trailhead. They contain the waste and keep it secure for transporting out.

Evening patrol culminates 90 minutes later when Tierney explains to three sisters they must carry a bear canister for their food and waste. They used rope to tie a bag containing their food up in the air, off a dead snag. It’s less than 6 feet off the ground and would be easy pickings for a hungry bruin.

Instead of continuing on their journey to Geneva Lake the following day, Tierney tells them calmly but firmly that they must return to the Roaring Fork Valley and rent or buy a bear canister. If they ignore the order, they risk a $130 fine, he says.

Tierney later says enforcement of regulations is an unfortunate but necessary part of the job.

“Education is the primary thing rather than just being Johnny Law,” he says.

Popular and pressured

Aspen’s backcountry is getting hammered in places, and the Forest Service is mounting education efforts to lessen the impacts.

Encounters between humans and bears prompted a requirement that all backpackers in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness carry bear-proof canisters for food, garbage and other attractants.

Bears seeking food slashed 17 tents last summer, according to the agency. Three bears were killed in Maroon Bells-Snowmass because of aggressive behavior — due to people making food accessible.

Tierney said he and other rangers have found about 90 percent of backpackers on the Four Pass Loop have complied with the bear-canister requirement this summer. Compliance is spottier in other parts of the wilderness area.

On Friday evening and Saturday morning, when an Aspen Times reporter and photographer were in tow, Tierney found seven of 14 groups without bear canisters.

“I was actually pretty surprised by the number that didn’t,” he said.

It’s important that people comply, he said, for their own safety but also for the safety of other backpackers. Bears become habituated when they get a “food reward.” They start associating tents or people with food. So even people who comply with proper storage can be put at risk by those who don’t, he said.

People who didn’t comply told Tierney they were unaware of the regulation — even though information is on the White River National Forest website and on the permit they fill out for an overnight trip.

It’s not just out-of-town residents who claim ignorance. A Snowmass Village couple hiking out from Snowmass Lake on Friday told Tierney they hadn’t heard of the bear-canister requirement. They said they hung their food.

Reservation system assessed

White River National Forest officials are confident that compliance with the bear canisters will improve with time and education. However, soaring backcountry use creates problems that aren’t as easily addressed.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is in the process of assessing whether it should implement a reservation system for the Conundrum Hot Springs and Four Pass Loop — two of the most popular and pressured areas in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Snowmass Lake is a popular way station on the 27-mile Four Pass Loop. It also attracts climbers and even skiers headed to Snowmass Mountain, one of Colorado’s peaks higher than 14,000 feet.

Forest Service officials say the ecosystem at those special places is suffering damage from the intense use. Places like Snowmass Lake and Fravert Basin, along the backpacking loop, and Conundrum Hot Springs, a destination located in a separate valley, host thousands of visitors in the short, high-altitude summer.

On the hike into Snowmass Lake on Trail 1975 and at the lake itself Friday, Tierney encountered 14 overnight-user groups with 42 people. On the hike out Saturday, the Aspen Times team encountered another 40 backpackers heading to the lake and more people assembling for a trip in the trailhead parking lot along Snowmass Creek Road.

Earlier this month on the Four Pass Loop, the wilderness rangers encountered 450 people in one day.

The impacts

Tierney isn’t directly involved with the study on the reservation system, but the statistics he keeps on use and compliance with regulations will play a big part in the decision. He keeps meticulous notes on the conditions he finds during the day and then fills out a report at night that will be collated with other wilderness rangers’ findings.

On the hike into Snowmass Lake on Friday, Tierney dismantled two illegal campfires — one built on the trail and another just a few feet off of it. He removed all the rocks from the fire ring as well as the charred wood and threw them into the forest. He brushed the ashes and refuse into a bag and scattered them out of sight. Finally, he collected twigs, leaves and duff and covered the fire pit, eliminating all signs that a campfire had been there.

At the lake, he had to disassemble another fire pit built illegally a short distance from the lake and above the 10,800-foot elevation threshold. The trees take so long to grow at that elevation, he said, that scavenging wood for fires can have a long-lasting and devastating effect.

Campfires and camping within 100 feet of high lakes kill fragile alpine vegetation, compacts the soil and scars the land. Tierney had to direct one man to move his camp farther back from the lake Friday night.

Tierney said he believes a reservation system would be a good idea although a “tough transition.”

“I think the overall experience will improve,” he said.

There would be fewer people and a better chance to educate people. When picking up a permit, backpackers could be checked for compliance with bear canisters and human-waste bags could either be encouraged or required.

Some campers receptive

Tierney gives the benefit of the doubt to campers he finds violating rules. When asked if violators are ignorant of rules or arrogant by intentionally ignoring them, he is diplomatic.

“I think it’s great seeing people out, especially new people,” he said. “It’s a high-use area. People need to realize they must have as minimal of impact as they can.”

Sometimes, he encounters model campers. Tom Meiser and his son Sam were at the lake Friday night and planned to climb Snowmass Mountain on Saturday. The Lakewood residents had all food and garbage stored in a canister and kept a tidy camp.

“We’re all about ‘Leave No Trace,’” Tom Meiser said, referring to the backcountry-ethics movement.

They were aware of the canister requirement from looking at the White River National Forest website.

Meiser noted with disgust that human waste was in the middle of a campsite they scouted and that the thick carpet of bluebells obscured numerous other piles.

“The waste thing is horrible,” he said.

Not far away on Friday evening was a group of six campers, two from Denver and four from California. They were used to reservation systems for Sierra Nevada hikes and said they wouldn’t object on the Four Pass Loop. It would help limit the number of people, they said.

Tierney was forced to bury more waste Saturday morning, including a mess just a few feet from the lake. Before moving on to patrol the adjacent East Snowmass Creek Valley, he expressed optimism that the wilderness will remain pristine despite the challenges.

“I like to believe that if we come out here, we have that love for the outdoors,” he said.